Awe at the undeniable fact that I will forever be the son of a fiercely beautiful woman. Awe at knowing just how exquisitely she prepared me to live and write my way into this world. And yes, her absence hurts, but her presence – and I feel it more and more each day – her presence moves me forward. (Saeed Jones)

 

Every time Mother’s Day comes around, I always think of the poet Saeed Jones. His essay Infinite Ache: My First Mother’s Day Without Her comes to mind right away, after I read it for the first time a few years ago. Maybe it’s the way that Saeed wrote about his mother, or his grief, or the beauty of what she had imparted upon him, or the familiarity of nam-myoho-renge-kyo (the Nichiren Buddhist chant) but her being and his  writing had left an indelible mark in my memory.

In his poem “Mercy” from Prelude to Bruise, he writes:

Her ghost slips into the room wearing nothing but the memory / of a song…

 

I’m also reminded of Ayana Mathis’s book The Twelve Tribes of Hattiea book I read three years ago. After reading the book, I remember taking a nap and waking up thinking of Hattie, finding it impossible not to. The book unfolds with the lives of Hattie’s twelve tribes, or children, as I try to make sense of her hardness and her husband August’s softness. I remember Lafayette, steely and inaccessible, Franklin, whose narrative left me at odds with what I knew as the irrationality of war.

…Hattie wanted to give her babies names that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia, so she gave them names of promise and of hope, reaching-forward names, not looking-back ones. (Ayana Mathis) 

 

Recently, I read Tracy K. Smith’s memoir Ordinary Light wherein I was introduced to the incredibly intimate and tender relationship of a daughter with her mother. In a previous post about the memoir, I wrote about how Tracy’s writing opened up a new language for me, one I haven’t had the opportunity to create with my own mother.

I was calm and safe beside her, right at home. I didn’t think to call it beauty but beside her, I felt what the presence of beauty makes a person feel. (Tracy K. Smith)

I am grateful to these writers for their strength and their will to write their personal experiences and stories, no matter how harrowing or joyful, about mothers. My own relationship with my mama is a work in progress, a bond that I used to despise for a multitude of reasons when I was younger. As I get older though, I’m able to see her in a different light — who she is as a person, and who she was as a young mother then.

While the work of Saeed, Ayana and Tracy have touched something in me that is equal parts painful and healing, I am aware of my experience only as an immigrant daughter, kind of assimilated and openly queer. I revere Black motherhood, of which I have no direct experience but aware of the mottled heartbreak it comes with, in struggle and in relation to living in the U.S.

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I cannot fully know and I cannot fathom the well of pain felt by the mothers of Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Alex Nieto, Trayvon Martin, but I can surmise the depth of anger against institutions of state that have violently taken the lives of their sons.

What I do know is that it is the same institutions that have kept mother and child separate, an all too familiar scene at airports in the Philippines. The separation of the family is not an uncommon theme, as mothers leave their children in their home countries to care for children and families in the First World as recounted in this New Yorker article.

I think about struggles of mothers living abroad, the strength needed to withstand a foreign culture and the backbreaking work of minimum wage; the loneliness of an empty apartment after a day’s work buoyed by the promise of coming home one day; the daily misgivings of being undocumented, of being invisible and small in the face of the dollar; of the heartbreaking passage of time, of physical distance, of the increasing emotional distance, of being away.

Still, I see it — the smiles in spite of the callousness, joy in their eyes in spite of grief. I guess there will never be enough words, but always, an infinite ache.

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The featured image in this blog post, as well as the last two images are from Mamasday.org, a project of Forward Together, a multiracial organization for social change. Send a virtual Mama’s Day card using one of their beautiful creations!

Sunday Spotlight: Mama

Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight: A Personal Cartography with the Work of Junot Díaz

Sunday Spotlight

This was the order of how I first fell in love with the works of Junot Díaz: The title This is How You Lose Her spoke to me as I dealt with my own grief, after the end of a four-year relationship. The last story in the book healed me, with its honesty and the courage of facing your own pain heart-on.

You ask everybody you know: How long does it usually take to get over it?
There are many formulas. One for every year you dated. Two years for every year you dated. It’s just a matter of willpower: The day you decide it’s over, it’s over. You never get over it. (from The Cheater’s Guide to Love, This is How You Lose Her)

I looked for Drown next. And there, nestled in the annex of Green Apple Books was an old copy, its yellowing pages looking golden. I settled into a story called Boyfriend one evening, drawn to the perspective of an outsider looking in the story of a couple breaking up. Wanting to cross lines, to be there for someone else’s heartbreak, to hold another person’s pain in the hopes of dealing with my own. I had a similar experience when I read one of Saeed Jones’s poem Blue Prelude later on, from his collection Prelude to Bruise.

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Art by Kate Gavino (Last Night’s Reading)

And then there came The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a historical fiction of epic proportions about love and war in the Dominican Republic. This is where I got my introduction to the horrors of Trujillo and history, the wars we try to win every day within ourselves, the complexity and pain of family.

You don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a mother who never said a positive thing in her life, not about her children or the world, who was always suspicious, always tearing you down and splitting your dreams straight down the seams. When my first pen pal, Tomoko, stopped writing me after three letters she was the one who laughed: You think someone’s going to lose life writing to you? Of course I cried; I was eight and I had already planned that Tomoko and her family would adopt me. My mother of course saw clean into the marrow of those dreams, and laughed. I wouldn’t write to you either, she said. She was that kind of mother: who makes you doubt yourself, who would wipe you out if you let her. But I’m not going to pretend either. For a long time I let her say what she wanted about me, and what was worse, for a long time I believed her. (from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)

Díaz’s work has stayed with me ever since. Some time ago, he and Toni Morrison engaged in conversation at the New York Public Library on race and writing, which is worth watching repeatedly.

And then I came upon another gem, an Asymptote interview of Díaz. He delves into the complexity of language, the intersection of history and literature, an perhaps more importantly for me — how one can fully live inside a novel for days, for weeks.

As compensation for how difficult life was for this young immigrant in Central New Jersey in the seventies, I buried myself in literary worlds. I was reading voraciously by the time I was seven. A more omnivorous reader, I don’t know if that would’ve been possible. I would read all the biographies of famous Americans. Books on the Rockies. Books on how to build a campsite. I would read everything by Arthur Conan Doyle. I read the edited children’s editions of Edgar Allen Poe. I just tore through everything that my little elementary school library had. I fell in love with books that transported me far away from my world, which for me was very stressful. The library for me represented—or was—what the World Wide Web must mean to people of later generations. In many ways it was a plane, a passport, a lens, wisdom, and experience. (from An Interview with Junot Díaz)

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Art by Kate Gavino (Last Night’s Reading)

I know I’ve been drawn to Díaz repeatedly because there are so many parallels to his experience and mine. Immigrant, wanting to get a grasp of history of self. Writer, wanting to get a grasp of language. Reader, holding on to words for survival.